The Old Man and the UC

by zunguzungu

Stanley Fish wrote another column with the same basic argument, only now with extra scornful condescension and a Hemingway quote. I fired off a barrage of irritable tweets last night before going to bed, in the hopes that doing so would prevent me from feeling like I needed to write this post, but I should have known better. So here goes.

Fish acknowledges from the start that, after his last column, a whole bunch of people (including me) informed him that his numbers were bad, and (to his credit) he opens by linking to two of the academics who most programmatically argue and document that error, Chris Newfield and Robert Watson. But, of course, it wasn’t Stanley Fish that Newfield and Watson were arguing against; since Fish is only repeating what people like UC president Mark Yudof tell him, the articles that Newfield/Watson wrote against Yudof could serve as a rebuttal to Fish because his own post added so little to the conversation. The issue is one of macro-framing and the metaphors we use to do that framing, and from that big-picture perspective, Fish might have just handed his column over to Mark Yudof last week.

The Yudof way of framing the problem — that Fish reinforced — is basically this: (a) administrators are battling for resources with state governments and since the problem is basically rhetorical, we need to think about how to advocate for ourselves, and (b) the problem is essentially that the un-useful humanities are a luxury we can’t afford anymore, especially by comparison with the thrifty, socially productive sciences (whose self-sufficiency stems from the federal grants and private sector subsidies that we don’t need to look too closely at).

Both of Fish’s columns proceed from both of these assumptions, arguing over and over again that “we” need to work harder at persuading state governments to give “us” more money, and that the humanities are basically indefensible. If we proceed from these assumptions, we are doomed. Fish almost admits as much; as a friend uncharitably glossed him — and I am disinclined to give Fish much charity here — his argument seems to be that since the humanities are useless, we need to just own that and tell Congress, “USELESS HAS TO EAT TOO, SO PAY ME!”

The problem, he writes, is our fault because we’re too deferential; instead of “the defensive please-sir-could-we-have-more posture,” we should

“ask some pointed questions: Do you know what a university is, and if you don’t, don’t you think you should, since you’re making its funding decisions? Do you want a university — an institution that takes its place in a tradition dating back centuries — or do you want something else, a trade school perhaps? (Nothing wrong with that.) And if you do want a university, are you willing to pay for it, which means not confusing it with a profit center? And if you don’t want a university, will you fess up and tell the citizens of the state that you’re abandoning the academic enterprise, or will you keep on mouthing the pieties while withholding the funds?”

This is all not so much wrong as it is irrelevant. Yudof is never going to ask the people who appointed him pointed questions. And the people who appointed him know the answers to those questions: they don’t like the idea of a public university and they want to get rid of it; they aren’t willing to pay for public education because what they want is worker-training and publicly subsidized research that private corporations can make money from; and no, they aren’t going to “fess up,” because the entire point of appointing Yudof is to stage a great masquerade where “our” advocates march down to Sacramento (or Albany) to plead for crumbs, get denied, and then come home and merrily hack Classics and Italian from the curriculum.

In any case, quibbling about what rhetorical tone to strike is still just trying to think up a good PR strategy. You’re still asking for money. You’re still going to get turned down. When you’re asking a parcel of neoliberal technocrats — who only care about the university’s ability to produce value to spend money on something that has no value — you will lose. It doesn’t matter how you phrase the request. You’d almost be better off appealing to conservatives to fund the eternal verities of the Great Tradition (except they’ve all decided to put their money into Glenn Beck University).

I don’t know what should be done. But if we’re going to realistically look at the problem that faces the humanities and public higher ed right now — which are not completely the same, but have much in common — you have to start with the fact that Mark Yudof and company are a huge part of the problem. So it is incredibly telling that Fish’s response to Newfield and Watson is this:

My first reaction to this is to say (with Hemingway), “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”, and my second reaction is to report to you the conversations I have had in the past week with deans, provosts and presidents at four large public universities situated in different parts of the country. The picture they paint is complex and has something of the aspect of a kaleidoscope. There are so many variables that a nice clean account of the matter will always be an oversimplification.

Let’s close read that Hemingway quote. Since he doesn’t engage with their arguments — except, peculiarly, to admit that he once argued them himself? — that’s all we really can do; far from saying they’re wrong, he admits they’re right but also they’re wrong. Or something. Because, you see, when he asked Mark Yudof what he thought of the people that are arguing against Mark Yudof, Mark Yudof told him they were wrong. So, you see, right? Obviously.

Anyway, the Hemingway. What a funny move. He’s quoting the famous last line of The Sun Also Rises, in which Jake — the famously impotent figure of Western Man in The Modern World — manages to literally get the last word by telling Brett — the slutty but still totally hot figure for New Woman in 1926 — that (a) he totally would have taken her to the heights of ecstasy if only he not been castrated by her feminine freedoms (symbolized by The War, which made men into women and women into men), and (b) you’re a stupid and silly woman (or as Hemingway calls a stupid and silly woman, “a woman”).

I have a low opinion of Hemingway, by the way. And I find The Sun Also Rises to be particularly unbearable, in a way that last quote crystallizes: the Great War that killed millions of people is really about the way modernity is castrating our men and empowering the women, Brett is a FILF (a feminist I’d like… never mind), and Hemingway just cannot stop feeling sorry for the plight of White Masculinity in this Modern World, a modern world which seems to be all about how  Jews and Negroes Can Lust After Our Women. To sum up, it is misogynistic, it is Anti-Semitic in its Obsession with Cohn‘s Jewishness, and also there is a Lustful Negro Jazz Drummer who is “all lips and teeth.”

If I’ve taken a bit of a detour into how much I hate Hemingway, blame Fish for giving me nothing else to work with. Because that little aside was what Fish offered in lieu of an argument. Newfield and Watson point out quite correctly that tuition and state funding that go to pay for cheap classes — like in the humanities — effectively subsidize instruction in the classes which are much more expensive to teach — like the sciences — but since he knows and admits this is true, he can only avoid the issue by telling them that they’re a bunch of stupid women with stupid womanish idealisms (not gritty and hardened by gritty and hard reality like Fish).  Moreover, to demonstrate that these womanish scholars don’t know what’s up, he makes up some numbers, writing that “the calculations Watson and Newfield come up with might make sense in a small private liberal arts college with high tuition ($45,000 as opposed to $4,500).” But since they and he are talking about the University of California — and he is telling them their calculations are wrong –  it seems reasonable to point out that the UC’s tuition is at $12,500 this year — up 600% from 1990 — and looks to go up another 20% next year. How much you want to bet it’ll be at $20k in 5 years? Where exactly is this money to go? What exactly is this money to pay for? And how, exactly, is this money which cannot possibly be used to pay for the humanities? Somehow, after spending a week chatting “with deans, provosts and presidents at four large public universities,” he failed to even learn what this year’s tuition actually is. Quel surprise.